Authors: Roshani Chokshi
No distraction was worth death.
Laila watched her scar shift in the mirror’s reflection. Delicately,
she pressed her fingers along the puckered edges. Part of her wondered if the day she turned nineteen, she would split down the middle, unraveling into a pile of shining pelts and worn bones, the barest glimmer of an almost-girl vanishing into the air like smoke.
If they acquired the Horus Eye, she’d never have to find out.
Laila zipped up her dress, hiding the seam down her back. She left the
store wearing the brilliant ironwork gown, the straps of her Night and Stars costume glimmering just beneath the satin.
ON THE BOULEVARD
de clichy, the Palais des R
ves embodied its name. The Palace of Dreams. It was designed like a jewel box. On
the roof, beams of lights pirouetted into the sky. The Palais’s stone fa
ade was Forged with an illusion of dusk-touched clouds, purple-bellied and
dream-swollen as they skimmed across balconies. No matter how many times Laila saw the Palais, she always felt transformed. As if right then her lungs drew in not air, but the very night sky. Stars fizzed through her veins. The alchemy of the Palais’s music and illusions reshaping her from dancer to dream.
Laila stepped through the Palais’s secret stairway entrance. Inside, a guard holding a
silver lightstick greeted her.
nigme,” he said respectfully.
Laila held still as the lightstick flashed over her pupils. It was routine protocol for any who entered the Palais. The lightstick revealed whether or not someone was under the influence of a Forging affinity of the mind. Mind affinity was a dangerous talent, and the favorite method of assassins who could pass off the blame on
Once cleared, Laila entered the Palais. A sense of calm washed over her. The familiar perfume of the stage filled her. Waxed wood, oranges studded with cloves dangling from the ceiling, talc powder, and rubber. Inside, cleverly designed skylights filtered in the starlight. The ceiling arched like a vault over the stage. Champagne chandeliers ghosted over the crowd, glittering like
constellations crushed underfoot by feverish dancers.
On the wide, scalloped stage, the singer, La F
e Verte, sang a glorious song of revolution. Her gossamer green gown floated out behind her, wings of thinly cut mother-of-pearl slowly opened and closed from her back. The sharp scent of absinthe lingered in the air, and her most fervent admirers raised smoking goblets of the liquor high in their
hands. Behind her, she’d chosen a strange backdrop … not of the Bastille, the fortress that was stormed by a crowd of revolutionaries … but the catacombs of Paris. The ossuaries which held the bones of millions, the remains of voices both terrible and
grand from the Revolution. It was a chilling image on the stage: rows upon rows of grinning skulls, femurs bent into hallways and crosses. But it
was a reminder too. That every victory had its costs.
The second terrace was reserved for dressing rooms. Each star of the Palais had their own, customized to their specifications. Laila cast a glance over the terrace, quickly scanning the crowd, spotting the mark. The House Kore courier. He looked unsure of himself, sitting in a velvet upholstered chair. On the table before him was a bowl of
chocolate-covered strawberries. Laila grinned.
You took my advice
A Sphinx stood motionless in the corner, as she and S
verin had known one would. For large parties, the Palais always kept two on hand in the event someone tried to swindle an Order member or smuggle House-marked treasure out the doors. Today, the second Sphinx would not show up until an hour later, thanks to Zofia and Tristan’s
clever tampering with the Palais’s Forged Sphinx schedules. But there would be another “Sphinx” to take the guard’s place: S
verin. Tristan would be with him, posing as a police officer. A decoy item would be slipped in the courier’s pocket. Something that looked as if it might be House-marked, thus letting a Sphinx approach him. From there, the courier would be accused of theft, taken to a holding
cell, freed of all personal effects—including the catalogue coin with the Horus Eye location—“interrogated,” and let go.
In the background, La F
e Vert had just finished to thunderous applause. Next, it would be her turn.
Laila opened the door to her room. Inside, flames danced on stunted candles. The low light turned the room drowsy and golden. On a side table near her vanity lay a
bouquet of white roses.
And on her burgundy chaise lounge …
A boy. He was reclining on his side, absentmindedly tearing petals off a rose. He must have heard her open the door because he lifted
his head and grinned. His eyes were strikingly pale against the lustrous dark of his skin.
,” said the boy.
“Who are you?”
The boy stood and bowed. “Hypnos.”
Laila lifted her chin.
are you doing here?”
Hypnos laughed. “I adore you already! So imperious! I bet S
verin likes to be bossed around a little, doesn’t he?”
verin’s name, Laila snapped upright.
“What did you do to him?”
Hypnos clapped his hands together and sighed.
“Oh, goodness, you
verin! And why wouldn’t you? That boy looks like every dark corner of a fairy tale. The wolf in bed.
The apple in a witch’s palm.”
Heat rose to Laila’s cheeks. “I don’t—”
“I don’t really care one way or the other,” said Hypnos, waving his hand. His smile held all the danger of a pried-open secret. “And that’s not why I came, lovely. I’m here because if we don’t act soon, I’m afraid Tristan and S
verin will be dead within the hour.”
Zofia chewed on a matchstick, her eyes fixed on the exhibition door. The Exhibition on Colonial Superstitions was a glass and steel enclosure the size of a large greenhouse. Inside it were examples of ancient Forging objects throughout France’s overseas empire. Any moment now, the security guard’s shift would end. After that, she and Enrique would sneak in, steal an artifact Enrique
believed would neutralize the effects of verit stone, and meet up with the others back at L’Eden.
“God, this wait is miserable,” said Enrique.
At this time of evening, no one was left in the Champ de Mars but vagrants, beggars, and the occasional tourist trying to catch a glimpse of the Exposition before it opened. Over the past few months, preparations for the Exposition Universelle had transformed
the city, pulling the skyline into new shapes every day. Colorful tents sprouted up overnight, and the trill of new languages joined the sonorous buzz of electrical lights.
But nothing captured Zofia’s attention more than the impos
ing Eiffel Tower, the official entrance to the 1889 Exposition Universelle. The papers said that, together, Forging and science would pave a new age of industry. But
Zofia did not consider Forging separate from the sciences. To her, Forging was not some divine art bestowed by ancient objects, but a science not yet understood.
Zofia glanced at the forbidding Eiffel Tower. Some called it a Tower of Babel for the new age, for both had been built without Forging, and both marked the start of a new era. But the Tower of Babel had been built to reach God and the
heavens. Zofia was not sure what kind of god the world sought to reach now.
“What is taking that security guard so long?” Enrique grumbled. “He was supposed to be out by eight o’clock. It’s nearly nine.”
“Maybe he doesn’t have a clock.”
He stared at her. “Are you finally making a joke?”
“I’m pointing out a gap in your observation.”
Enrique let out a low whooshing breath. “And to think I could’ve
at the Palais des R
“They didn’t want you, remember? S
verin said your face was all wrong.”
“You are welcome.”
Past the Forging exhibition loomed the points of stone temples, tops of palm fronds, and silk tents that marked the sprawling colonial pavilions along the Esplanade des Invalides. It was to be the largest attraction after the Gallery of Machines
and the Eiffel Tower. According to the newspapers, it contained “a Negro Village with almost 400 Africans in their natural habitat.”
That word struck Zofia as wrong. “Habitat.” It sounded like it was meant for animals. People were not animals. It didn’t seem right that they were there solely to be seen.
“Ugly,” she said, not quite realizing she’d spoken until she heard her voice.
He followed her gaze to the tops of the tents, and his mouth twisted into a grimace. “Part of Europe’s ‘civilizing mission,’” he said quietly.
Zofia knew the definition of “civilize,” but she didn’t understand why it was being used. In school, “civilize” meant bringing people to a stage of development deemed advanced. But Zofia had seen the illustrations in the traveling books—the grand
temples, the complex inventions, techniques and leaps in medicine that had been discovered and implemented long before they ever reached European shores.
“That word does not fit.”
Enrique’s mouth was downturned. His eyes wide and jaw set. A pattern of sorrow mixed with something else.
Now Zofia knew what else his expression said. He understood.
A sound in the alley made them both
“A Sphinx,” he hissed under his breath. “Don’t move.”
Zofia stayed still as the lamplight twisted into a familiar reptilian shape. Tasked with tracking down stolen House-marked items, the Sphinx operated for and answered to the Order. As the Sphinx stalked past their hiding spot, Enrique and Zofia sank farther into the shadows. Behind him limped a thief, his arm bent at a wrong angle,
his wrist broken and bleeding into the Sphinx’s jaws.
Zofia averted her eyes. The moment a Sphinx targeted someone, the Forgery in their crocodile masks took over. They moved inhumanly fast, and their jaws snapped through skin and bone on whatever they caught first.
The man was lucky the Sphinx had only gone for his wrist.
When the Sphinx and the thief had passed, a clanging sound at the Exhibition
on Colonial Superstitions caught her attention. The security guard had finished his shift, and the door to the exhibition swung open. Once the night security guard finished locking up, he pressed his palm to a pane of glass. It glowed a brief shade of blue, then faded. The man looked around him. In the distance, beggars huddled into corners for the night. Skinny cats dissolved into shadows.
Enrique adjusted his outfit of a threadbare shirt and coat. “Remember what S
verin said. The theft has to look like an accident.”
“No explosives,” she said, bored.
Zofia did not mention that she brought her fire tape, incinerator, and matches. Just in case.
Enrique pulled a mask over his head. The guard started walking toward the street. Lantern light glinted off the edge of
his top hat. Enrique ambled toward him, swinging an empty bottle of wine he’d found near the trash heap.
“You there!” Enrique hollered. “Have you got any coin on you?”
The guard recoiled. Zofia moved farther into the lean-to, which meant losing sight of Enrique. But she still heard him. The scuffle. The guard shouting. Coins hitting the ground. Enrique’s drunken apology reverberating off the
Now it was her turn.
Zofia crept through the trash. Like Enrique, she was dressed as a beggar. Albeit, a slightly better kept one. Acting like someone else was easy, a relief, even. She had a script. She followed the script. The end.
“Sir!” she called.
The guard walked faster.
“Sir, you dropped this!”
She ran forward to catch up to him right before he left. As she ran, she was
careful to keep her gel-covered hands from touching anything more than she had to. The man turned, glancing down at her open palm full of silver coins.
,” he said, uneasily taking the coins.
Zofia held still. She pulled her cheeks into a grin that looked like hopefulness. She bent her knees to appear shorter. More childlike. If this didn’t go as she planned, there was one other way. Her
necklace was hidden under a high collar, and she felt its dangerous pendants like chips of ice against her skin.
“For your trouble,” he said gruffly, dropping one silver on the ground.
Zofia grabbed his open hand, leveraging it so that she trapped it in a flat grip with both hands.
“Thank you, sir,” she said in falsetto. “Oh, thank you so much.”
The man quickly yanked away his hand. Then he
ran off into the night. Zofia watched after him, then she looked at her hands. The gel was Streak of Sia, a Forge material first developed in ancient Egypt that retained the shape of prints. Specifically, handprints. Normally the gel was bright blue and frigid to the touch, but Zofia had altered the formula, turning the gel colorless and warm as human skin. It was said the Fallen House could do
more with the Streak of Sia. That they could Forge the gel not just to remember handprints, but to
prints on a person that would allow them to be tracked. But such technology, if it had ever existed, had died with the Fallen House.
At the entrance of the Forging exhibition, Enrique stepped out of the shadows. His beggar costume had been shucked off for a plain, dark suit and top hat.
She held up her hand. Enrique kept an eye out as she pressed her hand to the windowpane. It glowed a dull blue.
. On the heavy doors, the iron locks unbraided, falling into a noisy pile.
The inside of the Forging exhibition was far larger than the outside suggested. The gallery stretched into a long row of darkness, lit up by occasional points of light in front of glass display
cases. Though the outside looked like steel and glass, the interior allowed no natural light. Instead, large murals covered the windows. All along the back wall stretched panels of brocade fabric. They were so silky and bright, they looked almost wet.
Enrique pulled a Forged spherical detection device—one of her own inventions—from his pocket. He tossed it in the air. As it slowly spiraled downward,
light burst from the sphere, illuminating the room’s contours.
The place seemed empty enough to Zofia, though she didn’t like how it looked. Too closed off, despite the space.
“There’s no one here,” she said. “And there aren’t any recording devices. Come on—”
Just as she stepped forward, Enrique grabbed her from behind and quickly pulled her against his chest.
“Easy, phoenix, easy,”
Enrique said, low in her ear. “Look at the floor.”
The sphere had rolled to a stop near one of the many podiums. A spiraled grid of red light radiated out from the object, netting across the entire floor.
“They hid the recording devices in the floor?”
“Rather clever of them,” said Enrique, releasing her. “We’ll have to go slower than I thought.”
Zofia glanced at the front door, the pile of
iron chains just on the other side. Enrique had slipped extra cash to the madame of a brothel
the next night guard frequented, so the man wouldn’t arrive for at least another twenty minutes. That should have given them plenty of time.
But they’d planned their time assuming the recording devices would be on the wall. Not the floor.
“As long as we don’t touch any of the red light, it’ll be fine,”
He took the lead. He stepped carefully and completely within the bounded space of red light. Zofia followed, matching him step for step. Within five minutes, her calves started cramping. Every space became narrower. She could hardly fit the whole of her foot into each one. Zofia rose on her tiptoes, hands out to the sides for balance. Enrique did the same.
“Nearly there,” whispered
Enrique. “We just crossed the seventh podium, and I marked it at the ninth.”
Zofia didn’t look up from her feet. The darkness cinched tight around her. She knew it wasn’t a locked room. She knew it, and yet, she thought she could feel the air touching her. Soft as a feather dragged across her skin. Bile reared up in her throat.
It’s open. It’s open.
She looked up. She had to see the sky. Had
to know it wasn’t a wall. That the podiums weren’t students. That the electric whirr wasn’t laughter.
Enrique stopped a foot away from her. “We’re here! I can see the artifact—”
Her shoe slipped.
The red line across from her snapped in half.
Beams of light shot down from the ceiling. Outside the exhibition hall, sirens screamed into the night.
Enrique turned to face her. “
What did you do?
Zofia looked up wildly, but her gaze went not to Enrique or the
black column where the artifact sat, but to the man leaning against the wall behind them. In the dark, he had melded in with the shadows, but the light revealed him. His eyes narrowed, lips pulled in a sneer as he raised his hand. Light glanced off a raised blade.
“Watch out!” screamed Zofia.
The man thrust the blade. Enrique pivoted
out of the way. Instinct took over. When it came to socializing, Zofia had difficulty knowing the right moves. But fighting was different. It was all patterns, anticipation of the movement of muscle.
she could do. Zofia reached for her necklace. At her touch, the Forged pendants shifted.
Enrique jumped to her side.
“Get the artifact,” said Zofia.
He looked between her face and the pendant,
brows quirked for barely an instant. The man with the knife made a grab for her. She thrust up her elbow, catching him in the nose. Before he could yelp, she caught him sideways with a right hook. The man growled, backhanding her. Zofia’s face stung as she reeled back. Then, she clicked her heels together. Steel spurs spun out from her shoes. The man lunged once more, and she kicked out, swiping
his kneecaps so he fell, writhing, onto the floor.
The second he was down, Zofia raced to Enrique. He was busy wresting the square-shaped artifact off the wooden block. Behind her came a loud groaning sound. The man had pushed himself off the ground. As he lumberd toward them, a gold chain spilled from the collar of his shirt.
“Foolish girl,” he rasped.
He reached for something in his cloak.
Zofia ripped off another pendant, flinging it at his face. Chemically speaking, it was nothing more than a metal oxidizer and metallic fuel, but Zofia had Forged it to do more than just flash with light once. She had bent her will to
the object, encouraging it to draw from the very air itself. Now it sparked and burned, hissing against the man’s face. His hands sprung apart as he batted uselessly
at the pendant.
“Got it!” yelled Enrique.
Three policemen appeared at the front of the entrance.
shouted the first police officer.
All three of them looked up. The man’s mouth twisted into a grin. He reached for the hat on his head, then flung it toward the police officer. Zofia caught a strange sheen to its brim.
The second Zofia realized what it was, she waved her arms to get
the police officer’s attention. “
It’s a blade!”
Too late. The brim swept across one of the police officer’s throats. Blood bloomed down the man’s shirt.
“No!” she screamed. “No!”
The man grabbed her wrist. She tried to twist out of his grip, but he was too strong. Instead, she grabbed the gold chain around his neck. The man spluttered as the chain broke off in her hand, the force of it
throwing her to the ground.
“You don’t know what you’re stopping,” the man wheezed. “This is the start of something new. A